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As wild horses die from drought in Western US, volunteers step in to help

Wild horse herds across the Western U.S. are facing a desperate crisis because the herds' water supplies are drying up. (George Frey/Getty Images)

While droughts in the Western United States are not a rare occurrence, wild horse populations in several states are under threat as herds' water supplies are drying up this season — but volunteers are stepping in to help with some emergency measures.

What's the situation?

The National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln shows widespread extreme and "exceptional" drought conditions over Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. As reported by The Associated Press, volunteer groups in Colorado and Arizona have now begun trucking water and hay to areas where wild mustangs are most vulnerable.

In a shocking discovery during the spring, over 100 horses were found dead surrounding a depleted watering hole on an Arizona Navajo Reservation. Since then, residents have been hauling their own drinking water to try to save the lethargic animals wandering around like "zombie horses."

But members of the Navajo Reservation also point to another problem echoed by the federal Bureau of Land Management: too many horses.

Spokesman Jason Lutterman told the AP, "You're always going to have drought issues. That's a common thing out on the range. What really exacerbates things is when we're already over population, because then you already have resource issues."

So, now what?

As volunteers continue to ship resources to remote herds, groups managing the horses are also looking at long-term solutions. The BLM regularly holds round-ups to cull populations and sell the animals at auction or offer them for adoption. The Bureau is not allowed to kill the animals, but the idea has been considered along with the possibility of selling the mustangs for slaughter.

Some wild horse advocacy groups agree that this year's drought has been particularly harsh, but disagree with the BLM's mustang population estimates — and further disagree with pulling horses off the range to be sold.

Activists have rallied for the government to stop selling the horses, and to instead manage the population with contraception. But the BLM argues that administering birth control annually via dart guns is simply not a viable solution given the nature and numbers of the animals.

In the meantime, volunteers continue to provide water to desperate wild horses who in many cases have now become approachable by humans.

One last thing…
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